Mitt Romney now has some breathing space vouchsafed by the right-wingers who reluctantly picked him in the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll, not to mention the Republicans who bothered to show up at the semi-real polling places of the sparsely attended and barely contested Maine caucuses. That breathing space stretches to primaries in Arizona and Michigan on February 28. Lord knows what will come out of Romney's mouth between now and then. 

At CPAC, Mitt eked out a narrow margin over Rick Santorum after the Romney campaign bought registrations to pad his total and the organization changed the voting rules in a way that benefited the establishment choice. The change was aimed at stopping Ron Paul, who'd won CPAC before, but didn't attend this year. It's part of a pattern in this year's GOP contest — from a "mistake" in Iowa that stole Santorum's victory on election night to the sudden rediscovery of previously unenforced rules in Virginia that are keeping Santorum and Newt Gingrich off the state's primary ballot.

Romney showed up at CPAC and offered the kind of trademark gaffe that in his campaign is prologue as well as past.

In Maine, where Paul was Mitt's only active opponent, Romney's 3 percent victory margin let him escape a disaster that would have compounded his trifecta of defeats in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado on February 7; this was supposed to be Mitt's month, with Newt the beleaguered alternative, but Santorum swept all three contests.  

On the rebound, Romney showed up at CPAC and offered the kind of trademark gaffe that in his campaign is prologue as well as past. He disobeyed his handlers again and spoke off script and off prompter. He's repeatedly derided President Obama for using a teleprompter, so Romney's reliance on it is just another flip-flop. Regardless, he ought to stick to the words on the screen. He was supposed to say that he was the "conservative" governor of Massachusetts; instead he extemporaneously proclaimed that he was "severely conservative."

This tin-tongued, all-but-senseless phrase created a head-scratching moment that provoked derision and rebuke from Republicans as diverse as David Frum and Rush Limbaugh. "Severely constipated" is a phrase that makes sense — and might apply to Romney. But "severely conservative" not only suggests that he's adverb-challenged, but reveals how hard he's straining, too hard, to prove he's something he's not — a genuine, card-carrying, consistent paladin of the hard right. He discards his past positions on basic issues of conscience like an old pair of sneakers so he can run as fast as possible in the opposite direction. This has led skeptical Republicans to doubt not only his convictions, but his character — and left him struggling for a nomination that, by all the conventional measures, long since should have been his. 

Instead, on the same day as CPAC and Maine, Public Policy Polling, which has been remarkably accurate during this turbulent primary season, showed Santorum leading Romney 38 percent to 23 percent nationally, with Gingrich at 17 percent and Paul at 13 percent. And with a pandering Romney increasingly self-positioned as T.S. Eliot's "hollow man, head piece filled with straw [poll]," you have to wonder whether the establishment-ordained candidate, the "inevitable" nominee according to many commentators (including me), could actually fail in the GOP for the first time since 1964. 

As empty — or craven — as Romney is, you can't beat no one with no one. But it should worry the Romney campaign that in the PPP data, his favorable/unfavorable rating among Republicans is just 44 percent to 43 percent, while Santorum's favorable is 64 percent, and his unfavorable just 22 percent. 

I still believe Santorum is a hopeless choice for the GOP, although I very much hope he's the nominee. And I see Newt Gingrich, the Colonel Blimp of this spectacle, as a "safety net" who in his ego-fuelled drive toward the bitter end may save Romney — to use his own phrase — from a "very poor" performance in the next round of primaries. 

Romney still has all the usual assets — money, structure, endorsements — although the once penurious Santorum raised $3 million, at a clip of a million a day, after his February 7 triumphs. Most of the Santorum money is coming on the internet from a grassroots that seems to be telling Mitt: "Don't tread on me." 

So the bottom line is this: The nomination may be Romney's by the standard playbook and the prevailing GOP tradition of primogeniture, but he actually has to win it with real voters — and Santorum presents a real threat on February 28. 

Arizona, with its Mormon-heavy GOP electorate, is widely conceded to Romney; if he falters there, his chances could evaporate in the desert sun. Michigan is another story. It is one of Romney's home states; like the first Bush, also seen by conservatives though a glass darkly, but ultimately imposed on them, he has multiple home states. But Romney may find it hard going when he goes home again. He dissed the auto industry bailout: "Let Detroit go bankrupt." And his step-home state, where he lived as a young man but never since, is also the home of a Republican Party dominated by the religious right. 

With his call to rebuild manufacturing and his appeal to so-called social values — a sanctification of intolerance, and a fierce enmity toward diversity, a woman's right to choose, and even birth control — Santorum calculates that he can play and win in Michigan. And right now he is. According to PPP, Santorum is surging to a 15-point lead.

In Boston, the Romney forces are plotting how the empire strikes back. Perhaps they'll even consider asking casino magnate Sheldon Adelson to keep funding the Gingrich super PAC; it matters less that the PAC would attack Mitt than that, in the end, Newt will continue to drain support from Santorum. If Gingrich drops out or is forced out because he runs out of money, PPP reports, 58 percent of his vote would shift to Santorum, and 22 percent to Romney. Boston can't afford that. 

Surely the battle plan includes Mitt doubling down on doing anything, saying anything, shedding any remnant of his own record to appease the tea partiers and the culture warriors — while, the strategists have to pray, holding onto the suburban Republicans and the moderate remnant who believe Romney doesn't really mean it. But that's precisely the problem the "severely conservative" candidate faces: He sounds like an unconvinced and unconvincing mouthpiece with his pollster and handlers functioning as tag-team ventriloquists. 

So that leaves Boston's other front, the kind of thermonuclear ad offensive that vaporized Newt in Florida. I know, it was the super PAC that did it, and of course Romney didn't know anything about it. And I know too that Gingrich is pretty good at blowing himself up. Now the Romney side has to launch again, but training the warheads of February on Santorum could backfire. Republicans could decide that Romney has gone nuclear one time too many. 

Beyond this, Santorum doesn't remotely resemble the target rich environment of Newt's failures and foibles. Yes, he lost his Senate re-election in Pennsylvania in 2006 — because, he can say, he stood firm for conservative principles. Yes, he sought earmarks for his state while he was in the Senate — but how does that transgression stack up against the mortal sin of RomneyCare? Yes, he's against a national right to work law — but that was about state's rights. And he did serve in Washington; but in Romney's case, the failure to do so wasn't for lack of trying: He was trounced by Ted Kennedy in 1994. 

Mitt's bet now — and it's necessity as much as strategy — is that Santorum's answers can never catch up with wave after wave of negative ads. Thus Romney may extort the Republican nomination from a reluctant, even resentful electorate by arguing that that other guy's a bigger bum than he is. Romney's peril is that the attacks may prove to be small beer — or from his perspective, small root beer. Santorum is a committed and credible ultra-conservative — and Republicans respond not only to what he says, but how he acts. 

When he left the campaign trail to spend crucial hours at the hospital bedside of his young daughter, Santorum gave primary voters a compelling glimpse of his character. To Republican faithful, he may be the real deal — a sharp contrast with Mitt's inauthenticity and Newt's demonstrated belief that marriage is between one man and three women. 

Leading up to Michigan and Arizona, we'll watch not only ad warfare, but a Republican debate that will draw a big audience. Will Romney be frozen in the ice of his script, afraid of another gaffe, but then thrown off his customarily stiff stride by another unexpected turn for which he's unprepared? Can Santorum take control, creating his own defining moment — or will he spend the night on the defensive? 

We are on the precipice of uncertainty in a campaign whose path once and then again seemed predestined. The logic still says Mitt is it. But life, even in politics, isn't always logic. He can't lose his way to victory — and if he loses again in Michigan, the race will be blown wide open, at least for a while. All the while Romney will be weakened by the continued shape-shifting and out of touch indifference that have already brought him negative ratings from independents and general election voters. And with a plague of pollsters now showing him behind Obama, his electability argument frays —  and he may be deprived of the last refuge of his opportunism. 

As Steve Schmidt, John McCain's campaign manager in 2008, has observed, the drawn out Democratic primary contest that year reflected a truth that strengthened the party for the fall — Democrats wanted to nominate both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton; this year Republicans want none of their candidates. Still someone has to prevail.

The improbably named Foster Friess, the wealthy investor whose largess has sustained Santorum through the winter of his campaign, tells this joke: "A conservative, a liberal and a moderate walk into a bar... [T]he bartender says: 'Hi, Mitt.'"

That's what nags about this manufactured man. So despite six years of campaigning, an ocean of cash, the imprimatur of GOP elites, and the consensus of the commentariat, it's Romney who now stands on the precipice. Ironically, his Mormonism may be the least of his difficulties and a vital asset; it certainly was in Nevada, and should be in Arizona. But now it's Michigan that matters. Maybe, just maybe, you can't be as severely phony as Mitt Romney and win the nomination early on — or even at all.